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Legislature: Stop sidetracking passenger rail in Minnesota

The Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago project would add a second daily Amtrak train between St. Paul and Chicago following the route of the famed Empire Builder.

Map of proposed Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago intercity passenger rail service.
Map of proposed Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago intercity passenger rail service. This project would add an additional daily round-trip passenger train to the existing Amtrak Empire Builder corridor between the Twin Cities and Chicago.
Minnesota Department of Transportation

After four bitterly partisan special sessions, the Minnesota legislators succeeded in passing a public works infrastructure package at the close of their fifth go-around. While our legislators may have surmounted their bonding bill hurdle at last, at the close of the fifth special session, the status of one issue hadn’t changed at all: $10 million in essential matching funds for the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago (TCMC) “second train” project were nowhere to be seen. Rather than using small levels of passenger rail funding as a bargaining chip, the next Legislature must find $10 million in matching funds for the TCMC second train in order to leverage a total of $43 million in federal grants and matching funds from the state of Wisconsin and Amtrak.

For the uninitiated, the TCMC project would add a second daily Amtrak train between St. Paul and Chicago following the route of the famed Empire Builder, which travels from Chicago all the way to Seattle or Portland. Although it’s a scenic journey, the eastbound Empire Builder to Chicago is often delayed west of the Twin Cities — frequently for many hours — by oil and other freight trains. A second train would not face these daunting delays, and would also provide both Twin Citians (plus residents of Red Wing and Winona) another benefit: a second set of potentially more convenient arrival and departure times that would complement the Empire Builder’s schedule and make business travel easier.

Gordy H. Moore
Gordy H. Moore
So, why was this worthy project not awarded a modest investment as part of the largest bill of its kind in Minnesota history? The process of arriving at the final bonding bill was described as “… making sausage and a little bit worse” by Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, the chair of the Senate bonding committee. Indeed, it has a multitude of hyper-local pork barrel projects, some of which were explicitly meant to draw the support of key Republicans in the House. It is clear that sausage-making and horse trading are both apt metaphors for the process, given that House Majority Leader Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, was quoted in the Star Tribune as calling “… the measure a compromise, saying it lacks some of the transit projects Democrats wanted, such as light rail and passenger rail. But she said it contains more highway funding and some money for bus rapid transit.”

On a fundamental level, it is misguided and shortsighted to use passenger rail funding as a political bargaining chip, while ignoring the ability to leverage $43 million in matching dollars that would directly benefit Minnesota workers, along with both freight and passenger rail operations, plus an additional $12.6 million pledged by Amtrak to support startup costs. In this case, the issue is that the horse-trading didn’t come out at all in favor of transit or sustainable intra/intercity transportation projects. While the 2020 bonding bill does have what’s been termed a “historic” $55 million for bus rapid transit, it also features an eye-popping $109 million in trunk highway bonds for state road construction and highway project development, $75 million more for local road improvements,  and $72 million for local bridges. Combined, those three figures alone represent nearly five times the investment in bus rapid transit; the Star Tribune’s analysis found $700 million total in the bill for roads and bridges.

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The only funds remotely related to passenger rail that made it into the $1.9 billion bill was $3 million (out of a $8.75 million request) for the Grassy Point Bridge in Duluth-Superior; the exact status and purpose of these dollars remains unclear. If the Legislature funded the proposed Northern Lights Express train from Minneapolis to Duluth, potential repairs to the bridge would play a small role in that project; if it is never funded, the repairs will only benefit private freight rail operators. Beyond that small sum, no other 2020 requests for passenger rail funding for the Northern Lights Express or for the Northstar Commuter Rail Extension to St. Cloud were included in the final bill.

It is obvious that passenger rail was cast aside during negotiations for the 2020 bonding bill and road/bridge projects received the lion’s share of overall transportation funding, while shovel-ready projects like the TCMC second train and the Northern Lights have been languishing on the backburner for years.

It’s high time for the Minnesota Legislature to move state passenger rail funding off of the sidetracks and onto the mainline.  In a time of intensifying climate crisis, with transportation the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota, funding sustainable passenger rail may help reduce emissions and vehicle miles traveled. Appropriating $10 million in matching funds for the TCMC second train project can help give Minnesotans an accessible and efficient intercity travel option — but only if the Legislature acts as soon as possible.

Gordy H. Moore is a former nonprofit research assistant and current Master of Urban and Regional Planning student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. While  interested in a wide variety of subjects, he has a particular focus on the relationship between transportation, land use and the environment.

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